The City of Wildwood currently faces an existential threat from the "Better Together" initiative. Proponents of the merger suggest that the region would be better off with the unification of St Louis City and St. Louis County and with severely reducing the autonomy of municipalities like ours. Many in the Wildwood community are opposed to the "Better Together" initiative and believe that local control is necessary to preserve the unique set of values and assets that inspired the formation of the City of Wildwood. We do not want to hand over control of our future to some vast homogenized regional governance envisioned by a few political elites and voted on in a state-wide referendum.
With such a fight before us, we should be putting our best foot forward and presenting our city as an example of how a charter city can run smoothly.
PHOTO: Recent Council Confrontation
Unfortunately, rather than shining a light on our successes, we have had endless, bruising arguments over the authority of our Mayor. It is no secret that some council members have a visceral dislike for our current chief executive. This has manifested in mind-numbing attempts to curtail the Mayor's authority with legislation to prevent him from organizing meetings with residents, nearly $30,000 in failed ethics complaints, misguided attempts trying to circumvent the Mayor's right to approve the appointment of a city administrator, and even anonymous social media sites that spread unsubstantiated rumors and personal attacks against him.
These needless jurisdictional battles is a manifestation of what I call "weak-mayor fundamentalism". It is often advanced by those aligned with a group of a few of the so-called city founders. They are
unhappy with how the city has advanced over the years. They rebuff changes made through legally mandated reviews of our foundational documents, and continue to oppose the inevitable administrative changes that come with the new challenges and opportunities our city has faced since its founding.
Those seeking to hobble the Mayor often state that our city is based on a "weak-mayor" system. According to them, the council is all powerful and our Mayor should do almost nothing at all. In a committee meeting, a council member once expressed outrage that the Mayor had spoken with a candidate for a co-interim city administrator position even though that council member and others had done the same. I have even seen a council member tell the Mayor to "shut up" several times while he was discussing city business.
The "weak mayor" rhetoric refers to the idea that municipal governments have two basic organizational forms. The Mayor-Council and the Council-Manager forms. The Mayor-Council form, which is what we have, then usually adopts either a weak-mayor or strong-mayor approach. The claim that the City of Wildwood is meant to operate as a weak-mayor form does not match what is actually in the city charter.
As opposed to being either a weak-mayor or strong-mayor version, our city is a variant somewhere between the two. For example, in a weak-mayor system a mayor cannot directly appoint city officials, and does not have veto power over legislation. According to our city charter the Mayor can appoint city officials, but must have the advice and consent of the council. Also the charter does give the Mayor veto power, something a weak-mayor system does not provide.
One could ask whether this hybrid leans toward a strong-mayor or weak-mayor form, but the Charter clearly addresses this issue and relieves us of the need for debate.
According to the charter, as a city we have decided to pursue a system of checks and balances with powers distributed between our unicameral legislature and an executive branch. So not surprisingly, Wildwood has chosen a middle path.
The charter recognizes in Article IV, that "The Mayor will remain as Chief Executive of the city...". The overview section of the Charter affirms Article IV by stating "the charter of the City of Wildwood continues as a Mayor-Council-City Administrator form of government with powers distributed and balanced." This is something that the "weak mayor fundamentalists" have been refusing to understand.
The point of balanced power is driven home in the Final Thoughts From the Charter Commission, where it is said that "this Home Rule Charter is designed to retain the most important features of the City's current form of government and add new powers, create checks and balances...". Given the current rancor during recent attempts to handcuff our Mayor, it is clear that some on the council do not like having their own power checked.
Recent attempts to hobble our Mayor are not only harming our city's image and interfering with efficient governance, they are driving some to outright absurdity. A member of the council has even created at least one anonymous site trafficking in false allegations, rumor and demeaning attacks meant to embarrass and bully the Mayor.
This type of bullying is never right. But at this time in particular, we should not be seeking to hamstring our chief executive. Currently municipalities are coming together to defeat the proposed "Better Together" power grab. We should be encouraging and propping up our Mayor as he joins the council and residents and other local leaders in fighting against the merger. We need to make common cause against the current threat to our community.
As a city with a proud history of environmental and social awareness, we need to work together and present ourselves worthy of the city that we have worked so hard to secure, and not seeking to tear ourselves down to score cheap political points against our current Mayor.